Violence engendered by the war

May 23, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Forgive me for interrupting. It's impolite when everybody around the table seems to have settled into such a familiar, comfortable discussion about violence.

Side by side we have folks complaining that Republicans are too meek on gun control and Democrats are too weak in countering Hollywood. Now the president has concluded that "there are far too many vulnerable children who are steeped in this culture of violence."

Missing war

Something is missing from this discussion. Maybe it is not dinner table conversation, but no one has mentioned the W-word: war.

Is it possible that we can understand a culture of violence without talking about war? I don't mean war movies or war video games. I mean the real thing.

Over the last weeks, the news has been full of the massacre at Littleton and the bombing of Kosovo -- reports that are simultaneous but stunningly disconnected.

This is what sticks in my mind in the aftermath of Columbine High. Remember Eric Harris' essay in which he portrayed himself as a shotgun shell?

A worried teacher went to discuss the violence with young Harris' father.

But, reported the New York Times, "after the teacher learned that Mr. Harris was a retired Air Force officer and that his son hoped to enlist in the military, she concluded that the essay was consistent with his future career aspirations."

This teen-ager's hopes and dreams and fantasies and games were about war. As a boy he and his brother played some variation of "Rambo." On the computer he and his friends played war games, "Doom" and "Duke Nukem." But it was OK because his "future career aspirations" were to be a warrior.

When Eric heard in his philosophy class that we were on the verge of bombing Yugoslavia he told a classmate, "I hope we do go to war. I'll be the first one there." It was only after his rejection by the Marines that he turned his high school into a war zone.

Culture of violence

Are we so immune that we think of war only as a metaphor for violence? Have we forgotten the background of the socially acceptable, socially heroic culture of violence: war?

We have been reluctant to talk about violence as a boy culture. Mothers will tell you that even sons forbidden toy guns will go around the back yard "shooting" with twigs. How many parents train their sons to fight their own battles in the face of bullies?

How many of us accept as "normal" boy stuff the video games that we are now told are virtual training sessions for military de-sensitization?

Do we abandon our sons to the culture of violence out of a subconscious agreement that boys may have to be our warriors? Even in the age of volunteer army and co-ed battalions, how many raise boys wondering if they will go to war?

At times it seems that everything is turned upside down. In Kosovo we have forgotten that war is hell. We expect surgical strikes -- mixing our metaphors of medicine and mayhem. We call our military on the carpet if they hit a Chinese embassy or a field of refugees.

And we are shocked -- shocked! -- when an American plane goes down and a soldier is killed. War isn't supposed to be dangerous.

Geneva Conventions

Indeed in August we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions that wrote civilized "rules" for the horror that is war. And in Washington, without any sense of irony, our leaders ask simultaneously for more money for bombs and strong policies for gun control or Hollywood control. They worry more about the effects of war movies than war.

The Marines were proud that they kept Eric Harris out of the corps. The system worked! But isn't war the system, the career aspiration for a young, disturbed war-lover?

I am not speaking as a pacifist. For all its complexity and horror, I don't think we can stay on the sidelines of every dispute between morals and might. There are, as well, times for self-defense. War happens.

But let's not deceive ourselves. To have a discussion about violence without talking about war is like talking about war without talking about death. That of course is another impolite interruption.

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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